21 Reindeer Facts and Frequently Questions [Caribou Too!]

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus)
Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus)

While many of us only think about reindeer once a hear, these furry ungulates are powerful forces of nature who are worth learning more about. Here are some common questions and interesting facts about reindeer, plus some intriguing trivia about Santa’s special herd.

1. Are reindeer real?

Yes! Reindeer are real. Not only are they real, they’ve been on Earth for over 2 million years.

2. What is a reindeer?

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) are a species of deer who are part of the Cervidae family. Cervidae include large hoofed mammals, of which there are two main groups:

  • Cervinae, which include elk, muntjacs (also called barking deer), chitals (also called spotted deer), red deer, and fallow deer.
  • Capreolinae, which include reindeer (also known as caribou), moose, roe deer, and mule deer.

3. Are reindeer the same as caribou?

Small herd of reindeer
A small herd of reindeer. Photo: Evgenii Mitroshin.

Reindeer are indeed caribou, and caribou are reindeer. The name reindeer is used more often in Europe, and caribou in North America. The word “reindeer” most likely comes from the Old Norse language from the word hreindyri. The term hreinn meant a horned animal, while the word dyr simply meant an animal.

In North America, a Native American word for these animals was adopted, which became what we know as caribou. Most likely, 17th century French explorers in Quebec and Ontario, Canada met Miꞌkmaq Native Americans, who called caribou yalipu, which means snow-shoveler in their Algonquin tongue.

The Miꞌkmaq apparently saw caribou pushing away snow with their hooves and antlers, so they could get to vegetation underneath, which they ate. As things go, the word yalipu eventually morphed into caribou. But whether you call them reindeer or caribou, they are the same animal.

Though reindeer and caribou are one species, they include seven subspecies:

  • Barrenground (Rangifer tarandus granti)
  • Svalbard (R.t platyrhynchus)
  • European (R.t. tarandus)
  • Finnish forest reindeer (R.t. fennicus)
  • Greenland (R.t. groenlandicus)
  • Woodland (R.t. caribou)
  • Peary (R.t. pearyi)

4. Are reindeer deer?

Yes, reindeer are a unique species within a greater family of different kinds of deer that is the Cervidae family.

5. Are reindeer dear?

Yes. Reindeer are very dear to Santa Claus, children, and grownups around the world. :o)

6. Where do reindeer live?

Reindeer / caribou used to have a bigger habitat, but warming temperatures and human encroachment around the world have driven them to the northern parts of the globe, to  Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia, Siberia, Greenland, and northern parts of Asia. Reindeer / caribou are known to migrate for thousands of miles every year in search of their favorite foods, which include lichen, moss, grass, and shrubs.

Here’s a video from Nature on PBS that shows a massive herd of reindeer migrating in Lapland:

7. How big are they?

A male reindeer, from the top of his antlers to the ground, is much taller than the average man, by a few feet. A male reindeer’s antlers alone can be 4 feet tall. At their shoulder, reindeer are 3-5 feet tall. And they’re about 6-7 feet in length. Female reindeer also grow antlers, however, theirs are smaller than the males’.

8. How much do they weigh?

Male reindeer can weigh up to 600 pounds and females up to around 400 pounds.

9. What do reindeer eat?

Reindeer are herbivores who subsist on mosses, grasses, lichens, shrubs, leaves, herbs, and other vegetation. They can eat up to 12 pounds of plant material per day.

10. How long do reindeer live?

The average lifespan of a reindeer, or caribou, is 8-15 years.

11. How fast do reindeer / caribou run?

Herd of reindeer running

Herd of reindeer running in Lovozero, Murmansk Oblast, Russia. Photo: Iceskating Grizzly.

These animals are literally born to run. Reindeer calves (also called fawns) can run within 90 minutes of being born. And these powerful animals can achieve speeds of up to 70 miles per hour. By comparison, wolves reach speeds of only about 38 miles per hour.

12. Can reindeer swim?

Just as they’re fast runners, reindeer / caribou are quite strong swimmers. In this video from the Smithsonian Channel, a herd of caribou cross a river, and a female caribou demonstrates her outstanding mothering skills:

13. Can reindeer fly?

Santa's reindeer
Santa’s reindeer are the only subspecies who can fly. Photo: Mrs. Claus.

Only Santa’s reindeer, who are a unique subspecies who have been specially trained, can fly.

14. Can reindeer talk?

While Santa’s reindeer can speak like humans, wild reindeer and caribou have their own language, which sound like grunts and roars to us. And calves are known to cry like human babies when they want something from their mothers.

15. Do all reindeer have red noses?

While Rudolph’s nose is special in that it lights up, all reindeer and caribou have the ability to make their noses red. While reindeer and caribou are covered with thick fur, which keeps them warm in their freezing habitat, their noses have less fur so they can more easily smell food. If they had not adapted over time, their noses would have frozen and they foraged on the ground for food.

Thanks to evolution, they developed additional capillaries in their noses for more blood flow to keep their noses warm. Just lie we humans get a ruddy complexion when we’re out in cold weather, so does the reindeer’s nose – only, it gets red to the n’th power.

In fact, researchers at the University of Lund in Sweden, researchers filmed reindeer with an infrared camera that showed how heat was distributed in reindeers’ heads and bodies, and sure enough, there was a bright red warm spot on their nose.

Infrared camera captures red reindeer nose
An infrared camera captures extra heat in the reindeer’s nose, which makes it red. Photo: @Ince et al, BMJ, courtesy of Greenpeace.

Dr. Ronald Kröger, the University of Lund’s professor of functional zoology explained it this way:

“When reindeer are feeding, their mules [noses] are exposed to very low temperatures as they look for food under the snow. They pump warm blood into the mule which means it can be a bit reddish because of this strong blood flow. The eyes and the mule are lighter and warmer than the rest of the body. Reindeer need to maintain sensitivity in order to know what they’re actually eating.”

16. What color are reindeers’ eyes?

One of the more unusual facts about reindeer is that their eyes change color according to the season. In the summer, their northern habitat has 24-hours of daylight, while in the winter, there are three months of darkness. Reindeers’ eyes have adapted to these light conditions. In the winter, their eyes become deep blue, making it easier for them to see in the day. And in summer, they become golden, which make it easier for them to see in nonstop daylight.

17. Do reindeer have good eyesight?

In addition to having eyes that change color, reindeer have a special kind of eyesight. They can see ultraviolet light – something we humans cannot. Until recently, biologists thought this was a skill reserved only for rodents and bats, but now they know that caribou and reindeer have it too.

Things like lichen, which reindeer and caribou eat, and urine, which wolves and other reindeer / caribou use to show territory, absorb ultraviolet light. Therefore, in a snowy landscape, what might seem like a barren white wasteland to us (or worse, cause snow blindness), these animals can see food and warning signs left by predators or competitors.

18. Do both male and female reindeer grow antlers?

Caribou near Mt. Denali

Bull and female caribou with Mt. Denali in the background, Alaska. Photo: Martin Capek.

Reindeer are different from other deer species in that both the males and females grow antlers. Males’ antlers can reach over 4 feet in height, while females’ reach to about 2-3 feet. In fact, they have the largest antlers of any deer species in proportion to their body size.

In March, little knobs appear on their heads that are covered with velvet-like fur. These knobs grow quickly into antlers over the next seven months. Then, by November and December, the male, bull reindeer begin dropping their antlers. The females will not lose theirs until the spring, around the time they give birth.

While reindeer will dig with their antlers and males will use them when sparring to show dominance, antlers primarily serve the purpose of adornments to attract a mate.

Because male reindeer lose their antlers in the winter, and Santa’s reindeer all have antlers, experts theorize that Santa’s team of reindeer could all be females.

19. What are baby reindeer called?

Female reindeer with young calf
A female reindeer with her young calf. Photo: V. Belov.

Baby reindeer are called calves or fawns, and sometimes yearlings. (Adult females are called cows and males are called bulls.) Generally, a female reindeer will give birth to just one calf, who weighs around 20 pounds. The calves can run within 90 minutes of their birth, and they become adult reindeer in about 5 years.

20. How big are reindeer herds?

Reindeer and caribous are social animals and they generally travel in large herds. Herd size can range from as few as 10 to hundreds. An in the springtime, they are known to travel in what are called “super herds” of 50,000 to 500,000.

21. Are reindeer endangered?

Reindeer / caribou
A reindeer in Yamal, Russia. Photo: Fufachew Ivan Andreevich.

Like so many other wild animals on our planet, reindeer and caribou are threatened. Since the mid-1990s, their herd sizes have declined by 56 percent.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists reindeer and caribou (Rangifer tarandus) as “vulnerable” because their populations are decreasing. Wildlife experts estimate there has been a 40 percent decline in Arctic reindeer and caribou populations, from about 4,800,000 to 2,890,410, in the past two decades.

Warmer temperatures from climate change and increased moisture from melting ice have caused changes in vegetation, which has impacted caribou and reindeer who live on the tundra. In addition, melting ice that makes the ground soft makes it more difficult for them to travel. Furthermore, oil and gas exploration in the Arctic has caused a number of habitat disturbances.

Woodland reindeer and caribou have been affected by deforestation and habitat fragmentation, which has impacted their food supply and made them more vulnerable to predators.

How You Can Help Reindeer and Caribou

Here are some organizations that are working to protect reindeer and caribou:

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